How to Study English: A User Guide

Don’t fear, help is at hand!

English is one of the weirdest degrees you can study. It has one of the lowest levels of contact hours (as I’m sure people have reminded you by now), involves dizzying stretches of work you won’t see immediate benefit from and has no established, taught or even discussed method on how to do it. Luckily, as a degree-carrying veteran of English at Durham, there are a few things I’ve picked up that I wish someone had told me when I started.

Buying Books

This may already come too late for some of you, but as it is the very first problem an English student encounters it’s worth mentioning: you DO NOT have to buy every book on the reading list. More controversially, you DO NOT have to read every book on the reading list. The tactic of buying them to guilt yourself into reading them also rarely works.

The best policy is to be as honest with yourself as you can. Buy nice copies of the books you are excited to read and want on your shelf, second-hand copies of those you think might be interesting (Amazon are great for these, a surprising number of them are just a penny and the postage charge) and use the library for everything else. While it’s true the library will not always have what you want in, it is fairly good most of the time, and if you are flexible on the books you need from it, it will serve you well.

Reading Books

You honestly do not have to read everything; but you should read as much as you can.

You will need one or two primary texts per essay and to be familiar with whatever text comes up for tutorials. A cursory glance will tell you that the lecture list for each module covers a lot more than this. Of course, this is a good thing. Lectures can introduce you to books you never would have heard of and, even if you never read the texts covered, broaden your understanding of a period and literature in general. But it is a Sisyphean task of maddening proportions to read every single book. Be selective.

While having said that, I would encourage you to choose the books you would like to read from every module and try very hard to finish them before the module ends. This is the only time where your official purpose is to read books from a particular period or genre. You will, unfortunately, still not get round to a fair few, it’s inevitable, but if you press ahead even when it feels like work for work’s sake you will be glad of it later. The desire to read some of the world’s most treasured books, to see what all the fuss is about if nothing else, will never go away, but the time to do it will.

If you do it right, you’ll be exhausted of reading books you are supposed to in three years’ time, and thrilled to get the freedom of choice back.

Dealing with Isolation

Surprisingly, this does not get talked about or even mentioned in relation to studying English, a course that requires you to spend the vast majority of time in a room, alone, reading a pile of books you will never finish. If it is mentioned, it’s usually as a selling point, and if you’re excited about studying English and you love reading then you definitely should be looking forward to it, but there can always be too much of a good thing.

For a start, it simply is not psychologically healthy to spend so much time alone. To make this even worse, achievements in English are often few and far in between. If you decide to tackle a six hundred page book at the start of the day and have only got as far as page one hundred by the time you go to bed, it’s easy to feel like you have accomplished nothing, are not working hard enough or not doing things properly.

This is at its worst when you are left completely to yourself during exam season. English is one of those degrees where you can very quickly feel like the university has forgotten you are there, which starts as a joke but can also quickly stop being funny. Add some pressure to this and you can quickly find yourself in an isolated and stressful place for days or even weeks at a time.

Avoid this: change reading locations often, do not limit yourself to your bedroom. Read at the library surrounded by people, embrace the stereotype and learn how to make a coffee last hours in a cafe, force yourself to go be social afterwards even when you do not feel like it, even if just for the sake of it. The best thing you can do is know this is a possibility and try your best to avoid it. It’s an easy hole to fall into and it’s horrible down there.

Tutorials

I may be in the minority here because I’ve never been much of a note-taking student, but don’t take notes in tutorials, talk instead. There are already too few of them and enough lectures to write down everything said at you. You may not always get around to reading the book, but even someone with five minutes can read a Wikipedia page enough to join a discussion. Tutorials are also not marked, so there is nothing to be gained by bullshitting with memorised quotes or proving you’ve read something. It is easy to be cynical and it’s fine if you don’t feel like it sometimes, but tutorials are pretty much the only space where you are given a chance to talk about classic literature with intelligent, like-minded people, and if that doesn’t appeal to you, you may want to question why you’re on this course.

Writing Essays

This is a tricky one. The process of learning how to write academic essays largely involves trial and error coupled with trying to apply conflicting advice from various tutors given during essay hand-backs. In order not to complicate the matter anymore I will try to be as simple as possible.

Broadly: Choose a question – read primary text(s) – dip in and out of secondary texts at the library and read what is interesting and relevant – plan – write – revise – print – hand in before deadline – drink (optional) – sleep.

Specifically: Be experimental. Formative essays give you the opportunity for this. Try whatever approach, method, writing style you can think of and see what happens, then use what you have learnt to play it safe and get the marks in summative work. Give this your attention and in three years’ time you won’t just have learnt how to read and analyse, you’ll have learnt how to write.

Exams

In all three of my years I spent the first two terms studying for its own sake and the last preparing for exams. You will use a fraction of what you’ve studied over the year but if you’ve studied well you’ll use that fraction well. It is ok to be practical and distinguish between work for general improvement and work to get the marks you need. Also, practice writing in timed conditions before hand; it is a shock to get in there and do it for the first time since your A-levels.

Finally, and if you take one thing away make it this, be sceptical rather than cynical. You can probably coast through without putting your heart into it, filling essay word counts with whatever fits, but you’ll miss out on so much if you do. The weirdest thing about studying English is that you have to make the course entirely your own in your own way. If you can do that, then you’ll be doing it right.

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